A Hydroponic Farm: Growing Herbs Without Soil

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The secret's in the sauce…and in the carefully designed troughs that maximize area and minimize wasteful evaporation. The plants are fed once every 10 minutes
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Brian Murphy and Loretta Ciotoli-Murphy, surrounded by the herb crops of Goodness Gardens. The soil-less hydroponic process is pesticide-free, highly efficient, and able to yield 36,000 plants a week.
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On Florida's west coast Pete and Pat Barker manage an eight-acre herb greenhouse in their own back yard—an operation geared toward conserving labor and resources.  

This story could have several beginnings.

The TV show. Instead of the old The Millionaire series, this one’s called The Investor. A wealthy man comes up to you and says, “Want to learn how to run a business?”

The factory tour. Come tour the hydroponic farm, a remarkable
plant plant, where 18 workers produce 36,000 herbs
a week, then package, refrigerate, and deliver them to
grocery store chains over much of the East Coast.

The herbs. Each flavorful, six-inch plant reclines
in an attractive, hard-plastic case: a half ounce of basil,
mint, or other herb–roots intact.

Past, process, or product. Whichever you start with, your
setting will be New York’s affluent Westchester County.
Here, 30 minutes from midtown Manhattan, lies a country
lane shaded by maples instead of high-rises. At its end is
Will O Wood estates: a gorgeous mansion, woods, and lake,
and tucked around its side, our subject, Goodness Gardens.

The past: 1981. Twenty-year-old Brian Murphy is
landscaping part-time at Will O Wood and studying computers
in night school. Edward (Eddie) Rosenthal, estate owner and
financial investor, asks Murphy if he’d like to build and
run two hydroponic greenhouses for a research project.

Over three years, Brian learns (the hard way) greenhouse
construction and hydroponic crop management. The project
becomes a small business–the sale of tomatoes and
cucumbers. One day, college student Loretta Ciotoli pedals
by for a visit and, entranced, ends up taking a job.

From there, events accelerate. Hydroponic lettuce replaces
tomatoes and cucumbers. Ciotoli marries Murphy (her bridal
bouquet: two heads of hydroponic lettuce). Ciotoli-Murphy
tells Rosenthal that she can do a better job of selling
their produce than their current marketer. Eddie gives her
the chance, and she does: Sales shoot up. By 1986, 30,000
square feet of greenhouses yield $200,000 in sales. In
1987, it’s 43,000 feet and $400,000.

But Loretta foresees trouble. “All of a sudden,
Weyerheuser, Campbell, everyone was getting into hydroponic
lettuce. The price was going to drop off. Brian and I were
sitting in our kitchen asking ourselves, ‘What other green,
leafy items with quick turnover can we grow?’ I looked up
at an old poster of culinary herbs we had on the wall and
said, ‘Why not grow herbs?’ ” With a little help from Zita
Rosenthal (Eddie’s wife), they did just that.

The process: hydroponics. Soil-less growing is
perhaps the quickest way to produce crops. Brian Murphy:
“Our crops mature 20 to 25% faster than those grown in
soil. Their roots get food immediately from the nutrient
solution. They stay small, so the plants put all their
energy into their tops. The crops are never under water
stress. And we can feed them exactly what they need to
grow. As a result, it takes us only four to six weeks to
raise an herb crop.”

Hydroponics is also space and resource efficient. The
Murphys claim it would take 60 acres of outdoor growing
area (in chilly New York State) to produce the same annual
output their one acre of greenhouses does. They add that
they use only 500 gallons of water a day, while outdoor
crops can demand several thousand gallons.

The rub? Vigilance. Both Murphys work 80 hours a week.
Brian: “The crops have to be watched all the time. If a
pump shuts off on a summer day without our noticing it, we
could lose $20,000 worth of crops in an hour.” He tests
everything by hand twice a day, refusing to go to a fully
automated system.

Each plant grows in a small foam cube that sits in a
U-shaped trough. (Brian designed these canals himself.
They’re thin, so he can squeeze in more rows, and they have
wide overhanging lips to reduce evaporation.) One minute
out of every 10, a recycled nutrient solution is flushed
through the canals. (The roots absorb oxygen the other nine
minutes.) After two weeks, that batch of solution is
discarded, and for one day the crops are given plain water.
This cleansing “fast” helps prevent disease and encourages
the plants to concentrate essential oils.

Brian doesn’t use any chemical pesticides and uses
botanical ones only as a last resort. Goodness Gardens’
crops thus fit current standards for “pesticide-free”
produce. However, since they’re raised with chemical
fertilizers, they can not be certified as “organic. ”
Murphy argues that his crops are just as wholesome and
nutritious. “Plants don’t use organic matter; they use
inorganic nutrients. We just skip the breakdown process and
directly feed them the 16 nutrients they need. Look at it
this way: A lot of ‘organic-diet’ people take chemical
vitamins regularly. We’re just popping daily vitamins to
our plants.”

The product: Timeless Thyme and friends. Brian’s
greenhouse systems are so efficient that it takes only two
employees to manage all 11 units. The real labor comes in
packaging: Fifteen workers man the assembly line. There,
each individual plant is cleaned, boxed, labeled (with such
names as Magical Marjoram, A Hint of Mint, and Oh-Oh!
Oregano!), and then refrigerated. The result? Three thousand cases of Goodness Gardens herbs are shipped
each week. That’s an amazing 36,000 half-ounce packages of
living herbs, each one retailing in grocery stores for
anywhere from 99¢ to $1.49.

Loretta’s specialty is finding customers for those cases,
and she’s done it by offering quality service. “We ship all
our herbs in our own refrigerated trucks, so we’re sure
they’re handled correctly. We use hard-plastic packs that
protect the plants and keep their roots intact, so they’ll
stay fresh for two weeks instead of two days. And our
labels have recipes and serving suggestions to help people
understand how to use fresh herbs.”

Consistency is another Goodness Gardens trademark. “We
guarantee A & P, Pathmark, Grand Union, Shop Rite, and
our other chains a year-round supply of the product
and–unique in the produce industry–a year-round
price. We don’t sell basil for $4 in the summer and $20 in
the winter.”

As a result, business is booming: Sales have almost doubled
every year since the switch to herbs. The Murphys now have
more than $1.5 million in annual sales ($350,000 profit)
and have become one of the largest hydroponic herb growers
in the country.

The future: staying ahead. Now they’ve reached
another turning point. Because of local zoning
restrictions, Goodness Gardens cannot expand any more at
its Westchester site. So the firm has started raising
additional crops outdoors in southern Florida.

Loretta’s also looking further down the road. Basil (40% of
sales), mint (15%) chives, oregano, and the other herbs are
all selling well now, and Ciotoli-Murphy has her eye on
several other East Coast cities she wants to move into.
Still, she sees the day when there’ll be a glut of
hydroponic herbs on the market. Thus, she’s once again
looking into other options (such as distributing other
growers’ products) and crops (baby vegetables). The couple
also promotes the Wonder Grow garden, a 2′ × 2′
homeowner’s version of their hydroponic system.

Combine the Murphys’ industriousness, growing skills,
aggressive marketing, and insistence on quality, and it
becomes clear that although this story could have three
beginnings, it will probably have only one ending.


Home-Scale Business

Not every hydroponic herb business is a big
one. In the Tampa, Florida, suburb of Brandon, Pat and Pete
Barker manage a prospering eighth-acre herb
greenhouse–right in their back yard.

The Barkers, like the Murphys, raised vegetables before
switching over to herbs, but their production and marketing
methods are on a much simpler, smaller scale. For instance,
Pete starts his basil by sprinkling the seed from a
saltshaker onto graveled rain-gutter beds. (Brian Murphy
uses a mechanical seeder to precisely implant his foam
cubes.) Instead of raising the crops in a completely
enclosed environment, the Barkers grow theirs under an
air-inflated plastic roof. During most of the warm Florida
year, the sidewalls are kept rolled up.

Rather than deliver carefully packaged five plants in
refrigerated trucks, Pat and Pete bag cuttings (one basil
planting may thus produce for as long as a year) and
deliver them to wholesalers in a covered pickup. From
there, most of their produce goes to restaurants, including
many at Epcot Center, Disney World, and the Caribbean

Of course, the Barkers’ income is more “home-scale” as
well. They gross $900 to $1,200 a week–instead of the
$29,000 (and growing) in sales the New York business
generates. But Pat and Pete aren’t complaining. They’re
working together at something they like and that helps
conserve resources. (Their operation uses less than 100
gallons of water a day–less than some families consume on
showers.) Indeed, since they keep coming up with ways to
make their jobs less labor-intensive, they’ve now reduced
their workweek to just 40 hours–between them!

Monica Brandies